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Education Route Map: Covid-19

Volume 689: debated on Thursday 25 February 2021

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the proposal for a national education route map for schools and colleges in response to the covid-19 outbreak.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me this debate, and pay real tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), who have been relentless campaigners for getting our children learning again and who went with me to the Backbench Business Committee. I wish to pay tribute to all the teachers and support staff in my constituency, many of whom have worked day and night to keep children learning, in early years provider schools and in our excellent Harlow College.

Why is this debate so important today? It is because this past year has been nothing short of a national disaster for our children and young people. The—[Inaudible.]

Order. There is a problem; I have to stop the right hon. Gentleman, as we have a technical hitch. It must be a serious one, because Mr Halfon clearly cannot hear me and cannot see that I am standing up. I hope that something is being done behind the scenes to try to get through to him. I think we must have a two-way problem, as we cannot hear him and he cannot hear me. As he is introducing the debate, this does give us a little difficulty, so I am taking the decision to suspend the House for three minutes until we can sort out the technical problem.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

Order. It seems that the technical difficulty has been overcome. I will just check with the right hon. Member for Harlow that he can hear me.

And wonderfully, Mr Halfon, we can hear you. I am afraid that all but the first sentence of your speech was lost, so let us start again from the very beginning.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me this debate, and pay real tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and the hon. Member for Twickenham, who have been relentless campaigners for getting our children learning again, and who supported me in my Backbench Business application. I pay real tribute to all—[Inaudible.]

Order. I am afraid we have another problem. I am so sorry. Once again, the right hon. Member cannot hear me. I am going to stop him immediately. Instead, I am going to ask the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), to whom the right hon. Member for Harlow has just paid tribute for his support, to open the debate—with no notice whatever.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) can at least hear this. Hopefully we can get him back to “open” the debate, after it has already been opened. We made the application to the Backbench Business Committee together, along with the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson). Of course, when we made the application, the Prime Minister’s national road map of Monday had not been announced, and we were very much pushing for a national educational route map out of covid-19 for schools and colleges, as is the title of the debate. We are, of course, all delighted that the Prime Minister made an announcement on Monday and that all schools will return, or at least be able to return, for all pupils from 8 March.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow leads the Education Committee with aplomb, and I would not try to take his place, but I know what he will want to cover in this debate, including the practicality issues around testing. He will also be majoring on issues around the catch-up fund and the announcement by the Secretary of State in his statement this morning about exams for this year’s cohort. Hopefully he will get his chance to make that pitch at some point during today’s debate.

Obviously, I greatly welcome the announcement about 8 March; I have called for this to happen many times in the House, as have so many colleagues across all Benches. As I said on Monday, it is absolutely the right decision. As a constituency MP for almost 11 years, I have never seen such concern and anxiety from parents and grandparents for the current state of mind and state of education of their children as I have seen in recent months. They are beyond worried about the impact of this dreadful pandemic on their children. That is what led me to push as hard as I did for schools to return. That is not to say that I am a “let it rip” merchant in any state of the term, whether that be in the wider economy or in schools. Of course we have to have a cautious, irreversible, balanced and data-driven release from lockdown, and we have to have—exactly—a cautious, irreversible data-driven return of our schools and colleges. I believe that that is what the Government are trying to set out.

There is no point in pretending—the Prime Minister made this very clear on Monday—that there will not be an impact on cases, on hospitalisations and even on deaths as a result of lifting restrictions on our economy. Anybody who seeks, after the 8 March, to say, “Well, this is the consequence that wasn’t admitted to by the Government at the time” would be disingenuous, to put it mildly.

I spoke to the Minister before coming to the House. In the past, before covid-19, we had things called summer schools. We have not had summer schools for the past year. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that one way of getting beyond this, whenever the schools go back, is to also have summer schools, and for that to happen we need the funding—

Summer schools are part of the catch-up programme. The hon. Gentleman has got his point on the record.

In many ways, the announcement on Monday about the return of schools was naming a date. That was the easy part. The challenge now is how we do that in the cautious, irreversible way that I have spoken about. I have reached out and heard from many of my constituency headteachers in the past 48 hours, and I have to say that the negativity and “yes, but what about” drain from some national figures on this subject is strikingly different from talking to my constituency heads, and the practical Winchester good sense I have seen from them. Let me quote one, who said:

“There is certainly a lot of work to be done before the 8th of March, but there is a sense of positivity and relief of our pupils coming back to school”,

and that is typical of what I have heard. I have been interested to hear, as there is much talk during the debate about safety in schools, comments such as:

“I am very happy to report that we have had no covid cases in school since September”,


“no confirmed adult or child covid cases since this all started almost a year ago (not tempting fate).”

That of course will not be the case everywhere. There are a terrible tales and terrible examples, but I cannot but be honest and report to the House that that is what I have had from some of my constituency heads. None of that is to say that we do not have problems—of course we do—and I will just touch on three and then let others speak.

Testing for covid is right up there for my secondaries. Whether we like it or not, the return will be staggered for many in the week of 8 March, prioritising years 10 and 11, but it is the sheer practicality of testing all students three times that is the challenge. As one school said to me, “I’m deploying as many staff as possible to testing while still allowing teaching to take place”. For big secondary schools where the majority arrive by bus, there is an obvious compounding factor that makes extended hours or weekend testing very difficult. We will get it done with that can-do attitude. Speaking to the Secretary of State this lunchtime, he reminded me that the guidance released yesterday said that schools can test in the week leading up to 8 March, which is next week. I hope that some big secondary schools—the one that gave me that example has 1,200 pupils—will take up the offer of doing that next week.

Secondly, in terms of testing in the academic sense, Minister, can we please be brave and face the issue of statutory testing at primary levels at this time? Having now missed two years of these tests, this may be the moment to draw breath and check that they are what we want to do, and that they are there for the right reasons.

Thirdly, on the catch-up programme, which I know we will hear more about from the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, if and when we can get him back online, I welcome the one-off recovery premium and the fact that it is for schools to use “as they feel best”, as per the Government’s statement, but we would be wrong to rest on that. It cannot remain a one-off.

On the national tutoring programme, £300 million is a lot of money. I know that the Department for Education has said that it has been shown to boost catch-up learning by as much as three to five months at a time, but I want to be reassured—this may be one for my right hon. Friend’s Select Committee in due course—that external tutors, who do not know the pupils, their profile as learners or the individual strategies used by an individual school to ensure consistency in the approach to that learning, continue to be the best way to spend that large amount of money.

On mental health and anxiety, I think that educational catch-up in my area will be okay in the short to medium term, but the anxiety and the mental health challenge that I am hearing about, and which I referred to at the start, is structural. There is a structural weakness that is undermining it all. I have heard from so many constituents and parents who have said that, of course, they are pleased that schools are going back from 8 March, but their children are nervous about going back. They have got used to not being out in society—can I believe that I am even saying these words in the House of Commons? They are incredibly anxious about doing this, and that structural challenge will be with them long after the catch-up programmes have done, hopefully, their best. I have to say, masks for the anxious are really not helping, so I very much welcome the Government’s intention to review that after the Easter holidays.

Finally, on Monday, I mentioned organised outdoor sport—not school sport, which I know is allowed from 8 March. The fact that organised outdoor sport is not allowed at the same time does not help with getting over the anxiety and getting the endorphins that we know and I know, as a former Public Health Minister—I have spoken about this many times in this place—run from that sport. That not coming back at the same time does not help.

I hope, in opening the debate, that I have framed some of the key issues and that we can now proceed without incident.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his impromptu opening of the debate. We will now have a three-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, and I am afraid that not everyone who is on the call list will be called this afternoon.

Last month, just one day after sending millions of children and staff back into schools to mix, the Prime Minister did a U-turn. He decided that it was too dangerous and that, in his words, schools were “vectors of transmission”. Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, but that is what the Government are doing with their big-bang reopening of schools. Recklessly forcing 10 million school pupils and staff back in a very short time risks a spike in community transmission.

We have heard deliberately vague claims from Ministers that this is backed by the science, yet on Monday, the very day the big-bang school return was announced, the minutes of SAGE—the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—scientific advisers were published. Far from endorsing a school reopening, they recommended a phased reopening of schools. Another group of Government scientific advisers warned that full school reopening could increase the R rate by up to 60%, so once again, the Government are ignoring the advice of the scientific advisers.

The Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Administrations are listening to that evidence and taking a phased approach. That means opening up for one group of students and carefully monitoring the impact over a few weeks. That is the way to reopen schools in a safe and sustainable way. We all want to see children back learning, but it must be done in a way that keeps infection rates down, not just in schools but in the wider community.

The Prime Minister says that opening schools is a “national priority”, but I am afraid that I do not believe for a minute that it is, because the Government care nothing for children’s welfare—not when the Government have forced over half a million more children into poverty, not when they axed the education maintenance allowance, not when they imposed £9,000 university fees, not when they closed hundreds of youth centres. A safe, phased reopening is what scientists, staff and other experts are calling for. Instead, we have a politically motivated return. It is a reckless gamble and I fear that our communities, and especially the poorer communities, where the prevalence of the virus is still highest, will pay the price.

The full return of schools on 8 March is much more than a waypoint on a road map. I very much welcome it and the safety measures in place. Can I congratulate my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on how he, at no notice, opened this debate? I join him in noting the can-do attitude of local school leaders and in thanking teachers in East Hampshire, as elsewhere, for all they continue to do.

This is not just about a cohort of children; it is about our children and about the future of our country. As we rebuild for those children, obviously schools and teachers will be in the lead, but we cannot put all the responsibility on them. It is a shared national endeavour in which everyone is responsible. Of course, it is about schools, but it is not only about schools. We need to think of a plan with children. In Government terms, that takes in the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and others, but it also goes far wider. I welcome the money announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State yesterday, but it is also not all about money. Partly, it is about time, but we cannot just cram our way through this. There are limits on how much we can lengthen days. Attention spans themselves have limits, and holidays are important, too. However, there is a role for those, and there are plenty of things that can be done outside the normal school day that are an equally important part of development and growing up.

My right hon. Friend is quite right to leave the discretion to individual schools, but there are things Government can facilitate to get everyone talking about how everyone is involved. I would like to propose a few areas. First, there will need to be more people to help on things such as the tutoring programme. It has been hard recently finding supply teachers, let alone those for additional tutoring. There are lots of people in this country who have a postgraduate certificate in education already but are not currently teaching, and I hope the Department can work out a simplified route for those who want to to be able to come back to the profession, including some refresher training.

Secondly, alongside the professionals, we need a volunteer army. A lot of course happens in schools already with volunteer readers, STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—ambassadors, mentoring programmes and so on. We do not need to replace those things, but we need to see how we can grow them and be yet more ambitious. I would like every organisation and company in this country to have a board meeting item to discuss how they can support this great endeavour for our children. It might be giving staff time for mentoring or careers advice, but it could also, as with the Hungry Little Minds campaign, be where companies work out how they can, in their business activity, help support early literacy development.

This is about much more than classwork; it is about mental health, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester said. It is about activities to make children active again, working with national governing bodies and local clubs. It is not just to catch up on schoolwork, but to get children back on track to rebuild opportunity, broaden horizons and get back to enjoying childhood at the same time. It is a big task and a big ask, and one we all have a role in.

I would like to pick up the point that the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) introduced about anxiety and childhood mental health. First, drawing on the work done by the excellent Professor Michael Marmot, covid-19 has exposed deep health inequalities, and I see this every day in my constituency work. Some 80% of young people say their mental health has deteriorated during the covid crisis. Before the first lockdown, about 10% of LGBT young people reported feeling depressed every day, which rose to 25% during the first lockdown. One in five young people experiences a mental health problem dropping out of education, due to stigma, and we know that, in our alternative provision for children who cannot remain in mainstream school, there is a huge mental health burden.

Today, I want to talk briefly about the mental health problems associated with eating disorders. First, I would like to put on record my respect for the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), who has spoken very movingly about having an eating disorder as a teenager, and for the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), who leads the all-party group on eating disorders. Obviously, the Government have done some important work in response to the Marmot review and have developed the wellbeing for education return scheme and the mental health support teams, together with the designated senior lead and in schools and colleges.

However, Mind—and I should say that I am a patron of Mind in Haringey—and its partner YoungMinds have briefed me about how there is a lack of awareness in schools and colleges of the wellbeing for education return scheme. I would like the Minister to respond in her closing remarks on what will be done by the Government to develop awareness in schools and colleges of the wellbeing for education return scheme. In addition, the mental health support teams and the designated senior lead are both good innovations. What is being done to put them in place on the ground?

Next week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Hope Virgo, who leads the campaign for people to understand eating disorders and do something about them, has emphasised the importance of more funding for primary and secondary care, and enhanced counselling sessions, really addressing the wider mental health problems associated with eating disorders. I hope that next week all Members of Parliament can get in touch with their local services and promote locally the stopping of eating disorders.

We will now go back to Harlow, but sadly only via audio link and with a limit of five minutes. I call the Chairman of the Education Committee, Rob Halfon.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your kindness and patience.

The four horsemen of the education apocalypse have galloped towards our children: a loss of learning, meaning that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers has widened considerably; dangerously fragile mental health; a new frontier of safeguarding vulnerabilities; and now, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a predicted loss of £40,000 in lifetime earnings. Despite the efforts of teachers and support staff, the gulf between the haves and the have nots has deepened. I pay tribute to the UsforThem parent groups, which have done so much to highlight those issues.

The first step must be to establish a long-term national plan for education. Education should be part of a trinity of energy that the Government put in, along with the NHS and the economy. This week’s announcement of a cash boost for catch-up, taking total spending to over £1.7 billion, is a really important building block in the road to recovery, but we need to ensure that the catch-up is directed mostly to disadvantaged pupils and disadvantaged schools, which have been disproportionately affected by closures.

We were told this week that 125,000 children are enrolled to benefit from the national tutoring programme, but more than 1.4 million children were eligible for free school meals. We need to ensure that the pupil premium really does target the disadvantaged. The funding currently applies to all pupils eligible for free school meals at any point in the last six years. The formula does not make any distinction between the disadvantaged and the long-term disadvantaged. The Government should look at reform, and consider a mechanism that helps the long-term disadvantaged—easily achieved by cross-referencing data from the Department for Work and Pensions.

We need to know that catch-up is working. Of course, I credit the Department for its delivery of more than 1 million laptops, the Oak National Academy, the expanded national tutoring programme and much more, but catch-up cannot be just about the input; it is the output that matters. If this programme of support is to benefit children and convince the Treasury that it is value for money, it will require proper assessment of the outcomes.

During my almost weekly visits to schools in Harlow in normal times, I have been moved by how mental health issues, even before coronavirus, have become so widespread, and they have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The Government’s plan to address that needs to be rocket-boosted. We need to ensure that the Department for Education gathers data on the extent of the damage of lockdown on children and young people’s mental health. Special funding should guarantee a mental health counsellor in every school and college.

Tacking on a few extra weeks to the school term for catch-up could go some way to help, but what will really make a difference will be extending the school day, not by placing an additional burden on teachers and school staff but by inviting in civil society, sporting groups and community associations to provide pupils with much needed physical activities and mental health support. There are 30,000 STEM ambassadors, for example, up and down the country—volunteers, ready and willing to be mobilised. Some 39% of academies founded before May 2010 have chosen to lengthen their school day, and in Harlow, my constituency, five schools, part of the NET Academies chain, already offer extended hours. We know that it makes a difference to possible educational attainment; children make two additional months’ progress per year from extended school time.

A national long-term plan for education will require some self-reflection. Ministers should consider the make-up of the school year and the school day, the lay-out of the classroom, behaviour control and the nature of the curriculum and assessment—for instance, whether students should narrow at 16 or study a wider baccalaureate that blends technical, vocational and academic learning, as they do in many other countries.

I would like to conclude by noting that, all through this speech, I have used the language of “catch-up” and “recovery”, “left behind” and “disadvantage”, but I have spoken to parent groups such as UsforThem, and they make a powerful point that we must be careful about the words we use, so as not to stigmatise children. We should be ambitious for them, and although I started the debate with a gloomy prognosis, I believe that pessimism is a luxury that no person in education should allow themselves. If we make sure that the catch-up programme helps the most disadvantaged, and if we use this opportunity to look at education across the board, we can help get the covid generation back on that life chances ladder of opportunity.

I want to begin by saying a big thank you to all the senior leaders, headteachers, teachers, teaching assistants and staff and governors who have helped to ensure that schools have remained open throughout the pandemic. In assessing the suitability of the Government’s education route map out of covid, I asked local headteachers from Enfield to let me have their thoughts on the plan, and these are their three main areas of concern.

The first is the inadequacy of the funding being offered by the Government for primary and secondary schools. A sum of £6,000 per primary school for catch-up funding is paltry. Schools have had to spend significantly more than that on supply cover for teachers who have contracted covid, are shielding or are self-isolating due to the need to maintain bubbles, and on paying for additional laptops and tablets following the Government’s woeful efforts to provide devices for remote learning—and all this having lost significant amounts of revenue in council school lettings. One headteacher told me that her school had not been fully reimbursed for the costs incurred during the summer to make the school safe. Headteachers have also raised concerns about the national tutoring programme, which to date has been very poor. One headteacher told me:

“I have spoken with several providers at length and they are only able to provide staff during the working the day…NTP should be offering additional support over and above what children are receiving in school…my kids need tuition before school, after school and the weekends.”

Secondly, there is the issue of special educational needs and disabilities provision. Many children with special educational needs have fared worse under the pandemic. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) mentioned issues around mental health. The charity Mind found that there was a 50% increase in children with diagnosable mental health conditions from 2017 to 2020. There needs to be huge investment in local authority mental health services for children. The Government also need to outline what support they will put in place for children and young people who cannot access child and adolescent mental health services but whose needs are too high for primary care. Without that commitment, children with mental health conditions and other special needs may never catch up.

Thirdly, there is the issue of safeguarding. Some school leaders and headteachers have notified me of a spike in safeguarding cases in their schools. The steep rise in domestic abuse against adults during lockdown is also affecting children. Schools will need additional funding for counselling and safeguarding support, but that is only one side of the equation, with stretched children’s social services departments also in need of help to meet safeguarding demands.

All those who have played a role in keeping educational establishments open throughout the pandemic are among the unsung heroes of the covid crisis, but morale is low. One headteacher told me that a number of members of staff had contracted covid in December, and one in her 50s had died from covid. The Government’s own advisers accept that opening schools fully will increase the R number, which is why I support the call for school staff to be prioritised in getting the vaccine.

In conclusion, unless more financial support is found for schools to plug the gap in their finances for SEND provision and safeguarding, the education route map may not lead to recovery but will be a slow and painful road to a dead end.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing this important debate. Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting seven headteachers from primary schools across my constituency. I would like to echo comments made by colleagues by thanking teachers and school staff for their incredible efforts throughout the pandemic to provide support to their pupils both online and in person during lockdown and for the work going into ensuring that schools are prepared for the return of pupils on 8 March.

I welcome the education road map that the Government have set out this week. Getting children back to school is the absolute priority. Face-to-face teaching is vital for children’s educational progress, wellbeing and wider development, but to ensure that children can return safely, catch up on missed classroom time and benefit from the huge advantages of face-to-face teaching, we must support teachers and schools and trust their expertise. I know that the heads I spoke to yesterday welcome the funding that has been promised, but may I urge the Minister to ensure that this funding is made available as soon as possible? Schools are thinking about summer provision and using outside providers such as Burton Albion football club to deliver sports clubs, as well as looking at running forest schools, which will have huge mental health benefits for children after the difficulties and isolation many have faced over the past 12 months. The recovery premium will ensure that that support is available, but speed is of the essence to allow schools to plan appropriately.

Finally, I urge the Government to consider again the issue of vaccinating teachers. I understand the recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation regarding the risk of mortality for those working in schools, but if our priority is to return to the classroom, vaccinating school staff will ensure that schools stay open and will reduce community transmission. Our vaccination programme has been a huge success so far. With a targeted effort, all school staff could be vaccinated within a few days. Not only will that keep our teachers safe, but it will keep schools open and children in the classroom, which we know is right for them and the best thing for their future.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate. It has been a pleasure to work with him and the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who stepped in so ably at short notice just now.

Nelson Mandela said:

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.”

Yet too often in this pandemic, I fear that children have been an afterthought for the Government.

I very much welcome the prioritisation earlier this week of schools in the road map, and I pay tribute to September for Schools, a nationwide campaign group, founded by my constituent Fiona Forbes, which has relentlessly sought to ensure that parents’ and pupils’ voices are heard on this issue. The welcome funding commitment to children’s recovery is between 3% and 4% of the annual schools budget, which was already under significant strain and now, strangely, yet further under strain. Many schools in my constituency are out of pocket from covid expenses, which are not being reimbursed by the Department, and have lost income, so there is a real danger that some of the catch-up premium could be diverted into the funding gaps. The extremely worrying educational attainment and disadvantage gaps that have grown through this pandemic must be addressed as a priority, but they will not be tackled in one or two terms and a summer holiday. We need a long-term plan spanning several years, and it needs to be holistic, addressing children’s academic and also social and emotional recovery, taking into account extracurricular activities such as art and sport.

There absolutely must be a greater focus on supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. We know there has been a significant increase in the number of children with a diagnosable mental health condition—one in six in 2020, up from one in nine in 2017. I have heard from young people in my constituency the anxiety that they are struggling with during lockdown. Despite that, the vast majority of the Government’s catch-up funding is focused on academic catch-up. Only £8 million is specifically committed to wellbeing, but all the evidence suggests that children and young people will not be able to catch up academically if they are not in a good place emotionally. To maximise the value and impact of the academic catch-up plan, wellbeing support is critical, as well as accelerating the roll-out of both mental health support teams and training for the designated mental health leads in schools. I urge the Minister to look very seriously at a ring-fenced resilience fund that allows schools to provide bespoke mental health and wellbeing support packages, as appropriate to their pupils and their context.

I want to end by paying tribute to the amazing school staff in my constituency. They are delighted that children are coming back to school in a couple of weeks, but they are exhausted, stressed and burnt out. They have been juggling classroom and remote teaching, testing and implementing new guidance at short notice. A long-term plan for schools must put children at its heart, but focus on staff morale, wellbeing and development as well as pay.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing today’s important debate.

I am delighted that schools are reopening a week on Monday. The importance of schools to children’s mental health and wellbeing, as well as to their education, has been stressed by many hon. Members. My experience, as a consultant paediatrician working throughout the pandemic, has been that I have seen more children with psychiatric problems admitted to acute medical wards and, indeed, more children with eating disorders—something raised by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, of which I am a member.

There are also safeguarding issues. Child protection referrals are down a third. They are often made by schools and we are likely to see a spike in those when schools return. It is right that the Government have made sure that schools are reopened first, and that we put children’s well-being right front and centre of all policy.

I should like to raise a couple of issues on the return. The first is the testing programme. Of course testing is very useful. Testing of all children will inevitably lead to some positive results; indeed, that is the reason for doing it. What provisions will the Government make available for those children who will end up at home because they test positive? Of course it is important to all of us, and to all our health, that people do want to come forward to be tested, but equally, parents will not want children to miss any more education than they already have, so it is important that, before next week, before parents sign to give their consent to that testing, they are familiar with what will be available to those children who test positive.

The other issue that I should like to raise relates to sport, specifically school sport. We know that sport is important for children’s mental health, for their self-esteem, and to improve sleep, physical health, social skills and team working; but we also know that it helps children to improve their academic performance—something that is important, as we try to ensure that children catch up academically. Sport achieves these things by many mechanisms, but particularly by improving concentration. Studies show that GCSE results are better for those children who do more sport.

The Government recommend currently that children do 60 minutes a day of moderate or vigorous exercise, but many—in fact, most—do not. Not all of that exercise needs to take place in school, but much of it does and schools can really contribute to that, through active travel, Bikeability, the daily mile, active school environments and increased school sport. So I ask the Minister to ensure that, as schools reopen, they do so in a holistic way that recognises the importance of sport to improving children’s overall health, wellbeing and, indeed, academic performance.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this very important debate, and pay tribute to all those teachers who have gone beyond the call of duty in our constituencies to support our children and young people. My thoughts are with those people who have lost family members who were teachers. In Tower Hamlets, sadly, we have lost two of our fantastic teachers to covid.

Our schools have maintained the utmost professionalism despite too often being let down by this Government during the pandemic—and that is in the context of schools in our country having faced hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts over the past decade. We had the exams fiasco last summer. We had the failure of Test and Trace, which meant that, when schools did return, many teachers had to be on leave to self-isolate and children in whole classrooms had to be sent home on multiple occasions, which meant that they were not able to attend schools. If Test and Trace had been effective enough, they could have done so.

We also saw schools, including in my constituency, having to make school buildings covid-secure but not getting adequate funding to do so. As a result, some are short of some £50,000 to £100,000 each, and the Government are not stepping in to provide them with the funding that they need. Ministers must look at that carefully as schools reopen.

We saw an increase in food poverty, the fiasco over free school meals, and the appalling way in which our children were treated during lockdown. We also saw the discrepancies between schools in disadvantaged areas, with poorer children facing bigger challenges and those from minority communities facing even greater challenges. Recent evidence shows that there will be a 22% gap between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from advantaged backgrounds in different schools if we do not do more to support schools from disadvantaged communities.

I call on Ministers to look at a phased return, so that this can be done safely, and to provide more support for children with disabilities, especially in special needs schools, and also in early years education. I also call on them to provide the 10,000 laptops that my borough is still lacking and to address the digital divide that is affecting young people in my constituency, to enable them genuinely to catch up when they return to school. I also hope Ministers will take seriously our concerns about teachers not being vaccinated—it is vital that they are. I would be grateful if they could address the question of those who have yet to be vaccinated and have underlying conditions in their families. If they are not vaccinated by 8 March, that is going to be a cause of anxiety for a lot of families.

As Members have already stated, the education road map needs to be a long-term plan, because the educational impact of the pandemic will likely last for the entirety of this decade. The challenge is therefore to think long and proactively, and not to take short-term reactive decisions. This means taking a multi-annual strategic approach, not a tactical one that covers only 2021. We need to take a strategic approach that is wide in its vision. After all, we do not have an education system—we have an education ecosystem, for which a holistic approach is needed. We need an approach that prioritises outcomes, not outputs, and that recognises not just schools and colleges—although I know that is the subject of the debate today—but universities and beyond, into adult and lifelong learning, especially given the enormous potential that reskilling and upskilling can bring to a workforce that will be confronting change in this post-covid decade.

If we recognise that a long-term approach must be strategic in its values, we must also recognise that, in its implementation, we must be prepared for adverse reactions to any new policies. Today’s announcements on teacher assessment for exams, for instance, is entirely under-standable, but it must also take into account the reactions that the policy will have in relation to university admissions later in the year and, indeed, what it will mean for grade inflation. We must be careful that one person’s solution does not become another’s problem.

This brings me to the delivery of the road map. A long-term plan can be delivered, and can succeed, only if it is driven by a process that leads to specific outcomes that are set and then measured. Words simply are not enough. An ecosystem can thrive only under the protection of rules and when it is maintained by standards. This is particularly true of education, yet I believe that the framework of assessment, and therefore the outcomes and the independent standards that drive them, hang in the balance. We cannot afford to go backwards. Let us not throw away the importance of listening to evidence-based practice and the data-driven process. That will need new metrics, which will be essential.

I believe that, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), we need to be positive and, if we do all of this, we can seize the opportunity to learn back better and to shape an opportunity from this crisis. Ultimately, if the national education recovery plan is to succeed, it must, above all, bring hope for a better future.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing this important debate. The last year has been extraordinarily challenging for everyone, and I want to put on record my thanks to all the teachers and support staff in schools across Dulwich and West Norwood for their incredible, tireless work to support young people, both in school and via remote learning.

All our brilliant local schools entered the pandemic having suffered 10 years of austerity. Government cuts meant that there had not been investment in IT infrastructure and skills. There was no resilience plan in place for a pandemic. As a consequence, schools were left scrambling to access resources and develop new ways of teaching.

The individual experiences of families and young people during the pandemic have varied enormously. Families living in already overcrowded accommodation, and those without access to laptops, tablets and broadband, have had a completely different experience from those with good IT and space for the whole family to work from home comfortably. Pre-existing poverty and inequality have been deepened and widened by the pandemic. Young people taking GCSEs, BTECs and A-levels this year have faced appalling and unnecessary anxiety and distress as a result of the Government’s long delay in confirming how their qualifications would be assessed.

The scale of the problems that children and young people have faced just have not been matched by the funding provided by the Government to support them during the pandemic or to assist recovery afterwards. The same Government who refused to fund free school meals during the October half-term and specified mean, inadequate food parcels for low-income families have also decided that 43p per child is sufficient to help children and young people catch up on all they have missed over the past year.

We need a much more ambitious package of measures in the short term to support young people both to learn and to have equally urgently needed fun, relaxation and enjoyment of time with their peers for the rest of the current school year and over the summer. For the long term, we need a detailed plan to close the disadvantage gap in education and support children’s mental health.

Supporting our children and young people to recover from the impact of this terrible pandemic, to catch up on their learning and social development and to fulfil their potential is an investment that the Government cannot afford not to make. It is an investment in the capacity and resilience of the next generation, the future of our economy and public services, and the fairness and equality of our society.

We all agree that schools should be the first to reopen, but I am really concerned about the lack of robust measures to make our schools truly safe for pupils, teachers and staff. The announcement about fully reopening schools should have been accompanied by details on rotas, smaller bubbles and vaccinations for teachers. We now know that SAGE itself preferred a phased reopening, and I have real concerns about whether schools, when they start to fully reopen, will be able to stay open safely.

However, today’s debate is about a road map and our ideas for recovery, and I would like to cover five areas. First, we must acknowledge that educational and emotional recovery should go hand in hand. I was heartened to hear the Government’s new education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, say something similar in the last couple of days. The educational and emotional recovery of our young people are two sides of the same coin.

Secondly, I would like to hear the Government commit to doing whatever it takes for as long as it takes, even if that is up to a decade, to ensure that every child has the chance to reclaim the opportunities for learning and social interaction that they have lost in the last year due to school closures. A big boost in schools funding will be a huge part of that. The summer catch-up fund must be only the start.

Thirdly, we need an urgent and bold offering to those pupils who are due to leave school this year. Liberal Democrats would like to see an optional additional year of fully-funded education, with living costs funded where needed, delivered in colleges and universities before students move on to higher education or training, or into the world of work.

Fourthly, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) has already raised the recognition and retention of teachers and other teaching staff, but school governors here in St Albans have identified it as a major concern. Teachers are battling enormous workloads, enormous stress, testing, inspections and ever-changing guidance. They have no time off. They get no clapping. They get no recognition or rewards. The Government must address this urgently if we are to keep our experienced and committed school staff.

Fifthly, we have an opportunity to look afresh at our education system. Are exams on their own really the fairest way of assessing students? How will we use the innovation of online learning? Valuable skills have been learned very quickly. With a rapidly changing economy, we need to foster an expectation and culture of lifelong learning. That is less likely to happen if people have a bad experience at school. How can we use the recovery to support pupils to develop a real love of learning? For that, we need inspirational teachers, and for teachers to inspire, we need to trust them to teach. The current system of top-down, Westminster-knows-best prescription, inspection and sanction is never going to get the best out of anyone.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, and—

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing this very important debate.

I, too, welcome the full reopening of schools, colleges and further education settings on 8 March, and the fact that the Government have prioritised education throughout this pandemic. The academic impacts of not being in a classroom for nearly a year will, of course, vary from child to child. The Government must ensure that any pupil who wishes to have catch-up education has the opportunity to access it. After all the lost classroom time, I am particularly keen to see the summer catch-up classes available in every school, and I appeal to teachers fully to participate in this programme.

The £700 million education recovery package, and the £1 billion covid catch-up fund from the Government mean that money is there for all students to receive the education and grades that they deserve. Despite the intense disruption of the past year, no child should be denied future chances that they have worked so hard for. Measures to support children so that they receive equal opportunities are incredibly important. The £350 million national tutoring programme will help 2 million of the most disadvantaged children receive high-quality tuition. In addition, I welcome the £1.3 million provided by the Department for laptops and tablets for remote learning for some of our most disadvantaged children. This will revolutionise their learning.

Today’s announcement about the arrangements for examinations will provide much-needed clarity as to what will be expected of teachers and pupils in the coming months. The teacher-led approach to awarding and determining grades seems to be the fairest system under the circumstances. Once grades are submitted by teachers, the exam boards and Ofqual must ensure that there is consistency and fairness across the country.

There have been extremely mixed reports about the quality of teaching and the hours provided in face-to-face and even virtual teaching by universities in the last year. I hope that the Government can agree that the care and understanding provided to our young people needs to be extended to those struggling in higher education settings. All universities must be encouraged to provide a level of support and high-quality remote learning to their students, who have, after all, undertaken a significant financial burden in their student loans and accommodation throughout this pandemic.

I end by thanking all pupils, parents and teachers in my constituency for their incredible resilience over the last year. It has been a challenging and changeable time. With the road map announcement along with today’s statements, we will have a positive and productive end to this academic year. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak today.

The pandemic has laid bare the inequalities across our society, but these have been exacerbated by the Government’s utterly inadequate support for our schools, and I fear that the impact could be felt for generations. After months of infuriating debates, the Government have finally been dragged to deliver 1 million devices to support remote learning—little cause for celebration, given that they arrive a whole year after schools first closed. I ask the Minister, whatever happened to the other 300,000 devices that were pledged? How does she think these children have been able to log in and learn from home? The answer is simple: they have not.

Every click has widened the attainment gap. We know that a device is inaccessible without connectivity, so with over half a million children without internet access at home, why have fewer than 68,000 routers been distributed? The reality is that the digital divide has manifested itself, giving those from the wealthiest backgrounds an advantage. Some 31% of those with the lowest incomes have been unable to spend a single penny on their child’s remote learning since September, compared to the 29% on the highest incomes spending more than £100. Eighty-six per cent. of private schools are using online live lessons compared to just 50% of state schools. Forty per cent. of children in middle-class homes access over five hours a day, compared to 26% in working-class households.

Minister, with schools reopening, this is no problem for the past because we know how far behind these children will have fallen. Whatever happened to levelling up? Before the pandemic, children on free school meals were leaving school approximately 18 months behind, and that gap was getting wider. The Government have failed those children throughout the lockdown and now offer a completely unambitious catch-up programme. Compared with the vast sums squandered throughout the pandemic, the new support promised to schools is paltry. I was tearing my hair out listening to the Secretary of State suggesting that £6,000 was enough for a school to employ more teachers.

Although I welcome the holiday schemes, work must be done to ensure that children who need them most actually attend. We need more than six weeks’ catch-up, we need six months’ catch-up after six months off school. One-to-one and small group learning is vital. The schools catch-up programme needs the drive and the delivery of the vaccination programme, and the Secretary of State is simply incapable of doing that.

Let me start by welcoming the fact that we are getting children back into school. The whole debate must be about children’s futures, but I just want to add a note of caution: Ministers must look at how best they can protect teachers now that teaching assessment grades are coming forward. I have already heard some anecdotes from teachers, saying that, having never had a complaint made against them, they are now getting complaints made against them as parents are looking to play the game. If parents disagree with the awards that are given, they can make an argument that there was unconscious bias by the teacher. We need to ensure that teachers are protected and that a robust system is in place so that those sorts of games are not played.

Fundamentally, I am worried about the fact that our children will not get the level of education that they have had in the past. It is absolutely correct that we can assess a child only on what they have been taught, but that does not mean that it is right to send them out into the world with good grades but with less of the curriculum than previous children have had. We need to look at the whole situation and see whether it is time for a fundamental root and branch change of how we educate, of what age children start, and of how we construct the school year. With that in mind, appeals against exam results this year should allow children to have the opportunity to take exams later in the year, perhaps in November, and allow universities to change their admission time to late January. In the United States, there are two forms of entry: one in September and one in January for children who have to resit their SATs. The time has come to totally reassess how we balance education. The long summer break is a relic of the harvest season. It would be far better to have four weeks in the summer and four weeks at Christmas, going back to school in the middle of January. That would allow the school calendar to fall in line with the calendar year, which would be a change for universities.

Fundamentally, what worries me is that we seem to be focused on staying within the constraints that have always been there, such as not making children resit the year. If all children resit the year, we could change this situation of a limited amount of education into what effectively would be extra education. Overall, with fewer than the majority of children going to university, I am worried that we are sending them out into the world without the level of knowledge that they need. The time has come to look at the situation that we face and say, “There will never be a better time for radical change.” That radical change must happen because, fundamentally, we cannot lose sight of the fact that it is children we are looking after and it is children we need to educate. We must send them out ready for the world of work, and not give them the disadvantage of good grades but without the knowledge they need because there was not the time to teach it to them.

First, I thank the schools, teachers and school leaders for working tirelessly throughout the pandemic. A polite way to describe the Government’s approach to education throughout the covid-19 pandemic would be “headline grabbing”, from the exams debacle and discriminatory algorithms to the unclear guidance on public health measures in education settings, free school meals and January’s U-turn on the return to schools. Government planning during the covid crisis has felt a little kneejerk and reactive, and sometimes these reactions have been incredibly slow. Despite the new academic year starting in September, the exam scandal last summer, and a chorus of requests from teaching unions and educators, Ministers only today published their plans for using teacher-assessed grades. It does sometimes feel as though things are being made up as we go along. That is why this debate is so important—it allows us to have a clear road map for young people, parents and educators so that we all know the plan and no one is left behind.

I want to focus on one group that has at times been completely ignored during the public health crisis: children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, and their families. This debate is about national education route maps for schools and colleges in response to the outbreak. Any route map must acknowledge the journey that many SEND families have already been on during this crisis and plot a way forward for them too.

Even before coronavirus, SEND provision was in crisis. Both the Education Committee and the Public Accounts Committee have provided damning assessments of the state of education for people with SEND. Now we are still awaiting the SEND review, which has again been delayed. Ministers have explained that the multiple delays have been caused by the public health crisis, but covid-19 gives more of a reason to publish this review, not less. I sit on the Public Accounts Committee, where I have heard care home witnesses say that people with learning disabilities were very much ignored at the start of the pandemic. We were discussing PPE provision, but I think it is a fair summary of how people are feeling, and the same can be said for education.

I have heard similar while chairing the all-party parliamentary group on SEND during our inquiry into provision during covid-19. SEND families have faced massive amounts of pressure throughout this public health crisis. Many have had difficulties getting online and significant problems accessing their equipment for home learning. We have also heard first-hand the experiences of young people taking assessments, from outperforming teachers’ best grades to not having the correct equipment in language listening exams. The announcement today on teacher-assessed grades is a step forward, but we need to ensure that SEND children—

I pay tribute to the schools and colleges in the Jarrow constituency that have gone the extra mile during this pandemic in ensuring that the impact on their pupils’ learning has been as minimal as possible. We must not forget that schools have never really been fully closed.

I want to see all children and all young people safely back in schools, colleges and higher education for their learning and wellbeing without any further disruption. This must be a priority. However, the Government must do everything to prevent a return to the scenes of last year where school staff and children were having to isolate, often multiple times, meaning further lost learning, further disruption, and an increase in infection rates in the community. The Government must rethink and set out a plan to introduce measures including effective mass testing, creating space with Nightingale classrooms, improving ventilation, vaccinating school staff, and increasing the financial support to allow schools to introduce covid safety measures.

Although cases are falling, along with hospitalisation rates, it remains true that cases are three times higher now than when schools reopened last September. From September to December 2020, covid infection rates rose among secondary and primary age groups, which meant that by Christmas, secondary students were the most infected age group and primaries the second most infected. Rushing all pupils back to school on 8 March without all safety measures effectively in place could potentially see our schools become once again, in the Prime Minister’s words, a “vector of transmission” into the community.

Why not take the same route as the devolved nations, whose cautious, phased approach to school opening will enable their Governments to assess the impact that a return to the classroom will have on the R rate and to make necessary adjustments to their plans? This is surely the common-sense approach, because the current plan to test all secondary school pupils three times on-site is a huge logistical challenge and will have a massive impact on teaching and learning time. That lost teaching time will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect on the wellbeing and mental health of children, and there is no long-term plan in the Government’s education recovery package to mitigate this. It would be better to plan and implement a successful and sustainable wider opening alongside vaccinating education staff as a priority. I urge the Minister and the Government to get it right this time to ensure that this is the final return to school and that they are guided by the science, along with listening to the trade unions, whose members work in this sector and who know how this should be done. I ask that the Health and Education Ministers listen to this and act.

The return to fully opening schools cannot afford to place children as the canaries in the mine for the first stage of easement, but must ensure that they and the whole school community are kept safe. The push to get all children in school led to a near-three months of children being out of school and infections spreading. Advice was ignored, with costly consequences, not least to children’s education. The Government have since failed to provide Nightingale classrooms, despite high class density levels—in fact, the highest in Europe and, likewise, here in York—so will the Government permit school leaders to apply a rota system where necessary to keep children safe? With the warmer weather coming, greater ventilation will be possible, but right now it is not.

Infection rates in York are higher now than they were at the end of the last lockdown, and the Kent variant accounts for the vast majority of cases. We are concerned that from 8 March we will see infection rates rise again, as the Prime Minister has warned. The Government must recognise the holistic needs of every young person or we will not see recovery, but an embedding of harm. If they are to process their learning, attention must be paid to the anxiety and wider challenges that children have experienced. Just 43p per child is simply insufficient. A wise Government would invest in their future, and I seek to understand how a Government value a child’s recovery so little.

Will the Minister assure the House that children have a greater balance to aid recovery, from sport and creative opportunities to space to talk, reflect and process? More professional wellbeing and mental health services will be necessary for some, but the Government are still unclear about how this will be sufficiently delivered. Recovery will take time, so we must see long-term investment in children’s wellbeing. As well as that, we have stressed-out teachers, who have worked so hard over this time. They need recovery, too, and investment, and listening to their needs is crucial now.

With regards to catch-up plans, additional support must be focused on in-class support for children who have fallen behind. However, I have serious concerns about boot camp proposals over evenings, weekends and school holidays. How much more of this social experiment and harm must children participate in? Instead, can we seek an opportunity of a schools-plus programme? Modules of supervised learning should be made available for school leavers to acquire further skills and knowledge, maintaining a relationship with education while pursuing their futures. A schools-plus programme of blended learning should not only address lost learning, but be a starting point for young people to continue their learning journey and pursue their life goals.

My final words go to young people. This is your future. You have been brave and resilient and must have a stake in all that happens. Government talk about you but not to you. From this point, you must have a real say in your future, too. This must be the catch-up on learning that the Government need to make.

I do welcome the fact that we will be having schools go back on 8 March. Frankly, bearing in mind the circumstances, I do not think the Government had much alternative other than to outline the plan they have for assessment. I am sure there will be some shortcomings with it, but, frankly, I do not think there is any alternative that would not have its own shortcomings. That is just the reality of the situation.

In terms of school closures and the impact they have had, we know from a lot of the studies that it tends to be the most disadvantaged who have been impacted the most. I would like to say one word about the Roma community in Ipswich—a group for which, for all the pupils, English is not their first language. A lot of schools in Ipswich were making real progress before the pandemic, and, unfortunately, that has gone backwards and, actually, the levels of participation in online learning have been below the average for the town. I really think, when we are looking at catch-up, the point about pupils who do not have English as their first language needs to be looked at.

As for SEND, I sometimes feel like a bit of a broken record going on about it, and particularly dyslexic and dyspraxic pupils, but I make no apologies for mentioning it again here today. We know that often these pupils struggle with online learning. We know that those with education, health and care plans have often been eligible to go to school but not those who do not have those plans. As somebody with dyslexia and dyspraxia myself, I really would not want to be in a position of having gone through this and not having that real-time engagement in the classroom and often, actually, not having enough engagement online either.

On assessment methods, I used to quite like exams as a dyspraxic pupil because I did not learn in the same way as everybody else. I was not a conventional learner; often my teachers thought I was a bit backwards in class, but I would surprise people at the exam because I could consolidate my knowledge—go away, do my own thing, come out and perform. I think some of the pupils should feed into teachers’ decisions about whether there should be tests. I would have said, “Please—I would like a test.” I would like the Minister to reflect on that.

Finally, on skills and apprenticeships, I was incredibly excited about the FE White Paper. I know that the Minister, as a former apprentice, is all over this, but I would just like to say that Suffolk would like to be a trailblazer for the new skills improvement plans. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and I are both backing that because we both represent communities with pockets of real deprivation.

I have forgotten the number of times I have spoken to businesses that say, “Look, we have good, skilled jobs coming down the pipeline, but people locally do not have the skills to take them.” We must get local businesses talking to colleges—forming a relationship, influencing and shaping the curriculum, and being part of careers advice from an early stage. When I look at the route map and the opportunity to do things differently, I am incredibly excited that Suffolk, including Ipswich, could be part of that. My plea, as always, would be that special educational needs kids need our support to achieve their potential.

I begin by paying tribute to teachers and education staff in Coventry South and across the country. This past year they have once again demonstrated their incredible commitment to education, working flat out. Thank you to all the educators in Coventry South, in particular to Coventry National Education Union, which started the “Coventry learning pack” campaign to promote remote learning resources for working-class kids in the city.

But teaching staff are again being put in an impossible situation by the Government. On Monday, just as the Prime Minister confirmed the “big bang” reopening of schools in England, minutes from a SAGE meeting were published showing that the Government’s own top scientists recommended a phased reopening of schools. When I challenged the Prime Minister about that on Monday, highlighting his shocking pandemic record, with more than 120,000 covid deaths, he responded with jokes and parliamentary theatrics. Well, I do not think there is anything funny about tens of thousands of avoidable deaths or recklessly ignoring the science yet again. Once more, I urge the Government: listen to scientists and education unions and follow the devolved Administrations with a phased reopening of schools in England.

There is so much more that the Government could be doing to make sure that schools are safe. They have ignored calls for Nightingale schools, for measures to ensure small classroom sizes and for teachers to be vaccinated as a priority group. Teachers, again, will be put in poorly ventilated rooms with dozens of children and no added protection against the virus. It is not just schools, as nurseries in my constituency tell me that they have not been given adequate additional support. Having to stay open through this lockdown while trying to implement covid safety measures has been unmanageable. With early years not having been given extra financial support this lockdown, nurseries’ already precarious financial situation has been made worse. Like school staff, nursery staff love their jobs, but they are being asked to work incredibly hard with pay that simply does not reflect their contribution.

The Education Secretary said that no child’s prospects should be blighted by the pandemic, but the truth is that, even before the pandemic, young people’s futures were already blighted by his Government’s education cuts and the deepening child poverty crisis. Per-pupil spending has fallen by nearly 10% in the past decade; in a classroom of 30 children, nine on average are living in poverty. Now, the pandemic has highlighted the flaws in the education system. We need to address them. That means tackling child poverty by building a humane social security system, funding mental health services for young people, and reorientating our education system so that it is geared towards learning and the wellbeing of children, with a proper recognition of and funding for our teachers and schools.

There is no more urgent task for Government right now than getting children back into school. I am delighted with the Prime Minister’s announcement that schools can reopen from 8 March, and I welcome the additional £700 million of catch-up funding, setting out a clear framework towards recovery.

Many children have suffered greatly over the last year, prevented from going to school, banned from seeing grandparents and kept indoors, inactive, isolated and spending hundreds of hours in front of a screen. Our children have not only missed out on learning. In many cases, they have lost confidence, motivation and purpose. I know that the Government have gone to great lengths to deliver online learning and support families financially, but I want to reflect for a moment on how society as a whole has allowed this harm to happen to our most vulnerable and most voiceless citizens during a pandemic that poses almost no risk to children’s physical health.

Over recent years, we have prided ourselves on our enlightened attitude to children, critical of the Victorians for their view that children should be seen and not heard. But this year, in 21st-century Britain, our children have been both unseen and unheard, with the harms that many have experienced only now becoming apparent. That is why we must strain every sinew to restore what has been lost to our children. I am heartened by the Government’s commitment to prioritise catch-up over the coming years, but this recommitment to children must extend beyond the academic. This year, we have seen how much more our schools offer than just the three Rs, and many families have all but collapsed without the social, relational and even medical support provided by schools.

Perhaps our brilliant schools have for some time been masking a deep social crisis: a crisis in family life. The charity Mental Health Innovations reports that in its conversations with children under 13, 55% say that they have no one else to talk to. Many families are in crisis, led by a steady, stealthy degrading of the role of families and the value of parenting. The trend towards more and more parents working longer and longer hours has done wonders for our GDP but caused harm to our children. Being a parent is one of the most important roles that any of us can have and has more long-term impact on society and the economy than almost anything else we do. But parenting takes time, effort and a huge amount of emotional resilience—resources that are in short supply when stressed parents are working long hours in a tax system that does not recognise family responsibility, and they have little energy to spare.

I welcome the Government’s dedicated and ambitious approach to academic catch-up in schools, but if we really want to restore to our children what has been lost, we should also look again at how we can empower and support parents to deliver their crucial role in our children’s success.

This has been an excellent debate, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and colleagues on securing it and the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) on the admirable way in which he stepped in to open it.

I want to begin by thanking staff in schools up and down the country for the extraordinary effort they have made during the most extraordinary year. We might think, from reading some of the headlines and some of the remarks from politicians, that schools have been closed and people have had their feet up, but I do not know a single member of school staff who has not worked harder in the last year than they have in their entire careers. We owe them a debt of thanks. We owe it to them to listen to them, to trust their expertise and to make sure that there are arrangements in place for the safe opening of schools from 8 March.

This debate is about the future and the longer-term future. I want to take this opportunity to imagine where we might be over the next decade, to consider where we have been in the last decade and to perhaps learn some lessons from the decade before. There is no doubt that, despite the best efforts of staff in schools, parents and all those across the country who care about the fortunes of children and young people, lockdown has had a serious and detrimental impact on education and wellbeing.

That is why the announcement earlier this week of catch-up funding and support from Government was so depressingly predictable and so predictably disappointing. It betrays a lack of ambition for our children and our country’s future, with 43p per pupil per day to catch up on lost learning and a claim of £700 million, £300 million of which had already been announced in January. The Department for Education refuses to tell us whether the remaining £405 million is new money from the Treasury or existing money from departmental budgets; I hope the Minister can be clear about that this afternoon. Just yesterday, in response to my question, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box boasting of £2 billion in investment. Of course, he was double counting the £300 million, and so much more is needed.

We should not be surprised, because in fact the biggest risk to children’s education, their wellbeing and their futures is not a deadly virus and a pandemic that will pass; it is a decade of Conservative party policy, which has left this country with rising child poverty, an attainment gap that is widening, and school funding lower in real terms today than it was when Labour left office. Indeed, in last year’s annual report the Education Policy Institute estimated that on the last five-year trend it would take 500 years to close the attainment gap.

The Department for Education’s own figures, published in January, estimate the level of lost learning in reading at secondary level at 0.6 months in London, 0.9 months in the south-east, 2.5 months in the west midlands, 2.8 months in Yorkshire and the Humber, and 3.3 months in the north-east. The crisis in lost learning initiated this debate, but before the pandemic, after 10 years of the Conservatives being in government, at GCSE the attainment gap between those from the most and least disadvantaged backgrounds was 16.2 months in English and 17.5 months in maths.

By region, some pupils were a full two years behind by the time they took their GCSEs—26.3 months in Blackpool, 24.7 months in Knowsley, and 24.5 months in Plymouth—and, as we have heard in contributions from colleagues across the House, the state of support for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities falls well short of what those pupils deserve. I commend the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for, as he put it, banging on about this; he has to carry on banging on about this, because what we have, and what we have had, simply is not good enough.

The lack of ambition was not just in the funding this week; it was in the package itself. Let us give kids a summer to look forward to, I absolutely agree, but where is the joined-up thinking? Why are we not mobilising charities, youth groups and wraparound childcare providers, which have been battered during the course of the pandemic, to step up and give kids a summer that they will never forget? Why is it that the national tutoring programme, even with this additional funding, still will not reach every child on free school meals, let alone the enormous need that exists beyond the most disadvantaged? As Natalie Perera, chief executive of the EPI said:

“The new recovery premium is a step in the right direction, but £6,000 for the average primary school and £22,000 for the average secondary is much too modest to make a serious difference.”

It is not even enough to recruit one teacher per school.

Indeed, where was the reference to teaching? All the evidence shows that, if we want to make the most difference to children’s life chances and opportunities, and close the attainment gap, investing in teaching, high-quality teaching and more teaching is the best way to do it. Where is the ambition to recruit a new generation into teaching? Where is the call-up for those who have left the profession early or have retired to step into the breach—to mobilise the cavalry, reduce class sizes, and enable more small group and one-to-one teaching?

The only inspired choice that the Government have made is to appoint Sir Kevan Collins to lead the work on catch-up, but I have to say that he has his work cut out for him. Only days ago, the Government’s own outgoing Children’s Commissioner said:

“Two weeks ago the Prime Minister said educational catch-up was the key focus of the entire Government—yet we still don’t know if next month”,

which is now next week,

“he is planning to take the Universal Credit uplift away from millions of families. The two positions aren’t compatible.”

She described

“an institutional bias against children”,

which I think is the most damning indictment of Ministers and senior officials of all. She said:

“I have to force officials and ministers to the table, to watch them sit through a presentation, maybe ask a question, and then vacantly walk away.”

We will never succeed unless the Government understand that the conditions outside the school gates do so much to determine what happens within them. There are now 4.2 million children in this country living in poverty. Before the pandemic, the Social Mobility Commission estimated that, as a result of the Government’s policies, that would rise to 5.2 million by 2022. The number of people living in temporary accommodation in this country has risen not just every year since 2011 but every quarter, and the number of families with children living in bed and breakfasts has upped since 2010.

It did not need to be like this. If the Government want a route map to a future of closing the attainment gap, lifting millions of children out of poverty and ensuring a bright future for this country, they need look no further than the record of the last Labour Government. Funding per pupil doubled. There were 48,000 more teachers, 230,000 more support staff and teaching assistants, 2,200 Sure Start children’s centres and record numbers of university places. We doubled the number of apprenticeships, and we recognised that families and family conditions matter, which is why we put child benefit up by 26% and gave working parents the child tax credit. The new deal helped 1.8 million people into work. A million social homes were brought up to a decent standard. Three million children received child trust funds. The impact of that was to lift 2 million children out of poverty, produce record levels of literacy and numeracy and narrow the attainment gap.

In conclusion, 11 years of Tory Government have inflicted more damage on the life chances and opportunities of children than a virus ever could. So long as the Prime Minister and his party are in the driving seat, I fear that even the best road map will inevitably see us driven on a road to nowhere.

I, too, thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this debate, and I thank all Members for all their contributions. I was listening hard, and I will try my best to address all the points that they have raised. I, too, add my thanks to the amazing teachers and teaching staff, to parents and to everyone who has been involved for their continued dedication and commitment to delivering high-quality education—face-to-face and remotely—to all pupils during this truly unprecedented period.

Education has been a national priority throughout the pandemic. When we took the decision to ask schools and colleges to restrict attendance, that was done to reduce the overall number of social contacts in our communities, not because schools and colleges had become significantly less safe. Many have said they were delighted when the Prime Minister announced a full return for face-to-face learning, and our focus must be on supporting children and young people and on reversing the negative effects of the pandemic and the time they have had out of school. The best place to start on that is in school or college. Most teachers and pupils cannot wait, and that is not to mention the parents.

We know there has been strong support for face-to-face education. East Kent College polled its learners just a couple of days ago and found that 97% wanted to return to onsite education.[Official Report, 8 March 2021, Vol. 690, c. 3MC.] As pupils return, testing is key. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester said, we need to rise to the logistics and scale of the challenge. School and college staff are already playing a vital role in rapid asymptomatic testing, with around 97% of all eligible schools and colleges equipped to deliver testing and more than 4 million tests being delivered across educational settings. We will see that can-do attitude, which was talked about by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, across our country with all our school and college teaching staff.

Alongside our approach to testing, we are extending the use of face coverings to all indoor environments, including classrooms, unless social distancing can be maintained. We are recommending that additional precautionary measure until Easter, when it will be reviewed. We know that the introduction has been supported by a number of unions and 82% of adults according to a recent survey, but I note the concern of Members.

Despite the return to onsite provision for as many pupils and students as possible, we are aware of the huge amount of work that must be done to support education catch-up. My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow rightly highlights disadvantaged children, who are at the heart of the Government’s focus. They are now performing better than 10 years ago in 2011, with the attainment gap narrowed by 13% at 11 and 9% at 16. As someone who went to a Knowsley comprehensive school, I know first-hand the impact that disadvantage has on life chances. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) talk about what a decade of Conservative Government could do, and I hope he was looking at those fantastic figures of the attainment gap narrowing, which are the result of our school standards and our approach to education over the past decade. If he wants to look at the figures, I will repeat them again: the gap has narrowed by 13% at 11 and 9% at 16 since 2011. We will rightly focus on helping those young people catch up.

We have a £1.7 billion catch-up fund, but it has to be outcomes-driven, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow mentioned. The Department has commissioned an independent research agency to analyse catch-up needs and monitor progress over the academic year, which will help us understand the extent to which pupils may have fallen behind and how the impact of postponed learning is felt differently across the country.

As many hon. Members have mentioned, we have appointed an education recovery commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, who will advise Ministers on the approach for education recovery. We will work with him and the education sector to develop specific initiatives for summer schools. A number of people mentioned summer schools, including my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Kate Griffiths), who said that many schools in her area have already started to plan a wide range of summer activities. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow supports summer schools and the covid premium to support educational recovery.

School sports were mentioned. Remote PE lessons have been available from the Oak Academy, but no one can wait to get back to the sports fields, so more funding has been made available to enable school sports facilities to stay open longer, and much of this will involve community and volunteers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) said.

The pandemic has shone a light on the life-changing role that teachers play in children’s lives, and it has inspired many others. We now have 41,500 trainee schoolteachers being recruited in 2020-21. That is an increase of 23% compared with 2019-20. Teachers and educators have worked tirelessly to support children and will continue to do so throughout, with many teaching their pupils while—let us not forget—also supporting the learning of their own children at home.

Throughout the pandemic, vulnerable children have been prioritised for on-site attendance. Early years, special schools, special post-16 providers and alternative provision have remained open throughout to vulnerable children and young people. As we move to full reopening, clinically extremely vulnerable children will still be advised to shield until 31 March and to continue with remote education, as will those children who test positive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham mentioned. That is why we strengthened our remote education expectations in January, with more than 1 million devices delivered to vulnerable children and 300,000 more to come. Schools are expected to deliver three to five hours of remote education to those who will continue with remote learning. I am also grateful to BT and EE for providing free access to BBC Bitesize resources from the end of January 2021.

All Members have mentioned concerns about the impact on children’s mental health. We know that we need to improve support for children’s and people’s mental health. This is not a new issue, but it has been further impacted by the pandemic. That is why we are committed to investing in, expanding and transforming mental health services in England. We have committed an additional £2.3 billion of funding a year, and 345,000 more children and young people will be able to get additional access and support by 2023-24. This builds on our existing support, including our £8 million wellbeing for education return scheme, which has provided funding for expert advisers training in every local authority area, and more than £10 million of funding to mental health charities, including Mind, the Samaritans, YoungMinds and Bipolar UK, many of which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West).

We need to increase awareness. In February, the Prime Minister appointed Dr Alex George as youth mental health ambassador to advise the Government and raise awareness of mental health. We are also setting up a mental health in education action group, which he will sit on.

I thank the House for this opportunity to discuss the route map for schools and colleges in response to the covid-19 pandemic. We continue to be impressed by the resilience and positivity of everybody involved—parents, students and, of course, teachers—throughout these difficult times. I know that the whole country will be delighted that children are returning to schools and colleges, and will once again see their families and get the education that they deserve.[Official Report, 8 March 2021, Vol. 690, c. 4MC.]

I will wrap up the debate. Every speaker thanked and praised their teachers and support staff for the work that they have done, and rightly so. Everyone touched on that challenge in one way, shape or form, whether they spoke about eating disorders or about general anxiety and mental health. I thought the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) put it well when she said that pupils cannot catch up educationally if they are struggling emotionally. I think we would all agree with that. A number of colleagues touched on the whole issue of the chance, perhaps, for a radical rethink of our educational offering and exams, for instance, and maybe that is right.

Let me finish by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to today’s debate, all those Members who put their name to it, and, of course, the Chair of the Education Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for opening the debate alongside us today. I thank him for his comments, especially when he said that there is no room for negativity in achieving what we need to achieve in education full stop, but especially around the catch-up that is needed. We need a plan for education and we need a plan for positivity, and if we can all do that, we might get somewhere.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the proposal for a national education route map for schools and colleges in response to the covid-19 outbreak.

I am now going to suspend the House for three minutes in order that arrangements can be made for the next item of business.

Sitting suspended.